Category Archives: Quora

From Quora: Writing Classes at MIT with Junot Diaz before his Pulitzer

At MIT from 2003 to 2007, I took 3 classes with Junot Diaz. Although my lecture attendance is notoriously bad (sometimes I didn’t even show up for exams), Junot’s classes were different. That first class freshman year, I felt like I’d been rummaging for garbage scraps my whole life and finally someone cut me some steak.

Junot swears, in a friendly way. “This isn’t fucking church. If it doesn’t move you, it’s ok to walk out.” I don’t know if his classes attracted the awesome, or if the class made people awesome, but some of the most awesome people I know I met in this class. Every week we would look forward to the 3 hour meeting because we were so excited to see each other. Whenever we met in the Infinite, we’d pause to talk about the readings and our work. Through writing, you get to know people in ways you would never see otherwise, because people write about things they wouldn’t have occasion to talk about: parents lying to each other about bad investments, gods contemplating tree spirits, suicide letters, using malaria to lose weight, grandmas stealing back grandchildren, getting stopped by the Israeli border patrol, shrooms in your fraternity, walking off a broken foot.

Once we went up to Wellesley because Rosa invited him to give a talk. Junot did a reading, and then went into discussion like always.
“How do we make the reader ok with the fact our narrator Yunior is a jerk?”
Imran said, “Yunior will do something terrible, but then he makes me laugh, which takes me to the next line.”
“He tells the truth,” I said. “He’s honest about being a jerk so you trust him to tell you the rest of the story.”
“Is there a sexist theme?” someone asked. “Yunior doesn’t respect women.”
“If the narrator keeps saying women are stupid, but then in the story a woman comes and takes his money, and another woman beats him up, no matter how much the narrator insists women are dumb, does the story say that women are stupid?”
Afterwards the Wellesley students crowded around, “Why haven’t I taken a class with him?”
This all was before Junot had written Oscar Wao (or won his Pulitzer), but his talent was obvious- we kids saw the signs.

Our mailing lists were active:
“Ignore my last email- that one’s shit, this is a better draft.”
“Let’s all meet at my ILG for dinner.”
“If MIT has taught me anything, it’s that parties don’t throw themselves.”
“Essays due! Get to work, gang!”

“Students! My students!” Chalk loosely gripped, Junot would dramatically, slowly scratch the board behind him without looking, then haphazardly stab back at it as he talked. Afterwards the abstract lines looked like we’d been doing some crazy algebraic geometry- you’d never guess we were talking about life outside the story, or lacunae, or structure, or voice. On my writing, he’d put check marks near good parts, “No” near bad parts, and a rare “You kick ass Nancy!” near kick ass parts. After class during finals week, we crashed a lecture hall to watch “Fuckin’ Shaolin Soccer” on the projector, everyone getting drunk.

It’s one thing to read a dead man’s writing. You can even read the living Sherman Alexei and think, “Yeah, some folks have it really bad,” while simultaneously implicitly concluding that others never suffer a day in their lives, or even that most people never suffer. Having my writing teacher be someone who wrote the type of stuff I’d read, who experienced things, who encouraged us to write about what messed us up, to connect with my crazy genius classmates, to realize everyone has a billion secret selves, shifting between various identities, to draw aside the curtain to reveal our secret worlds, was personality-altering for me. In my math and CS classes, we talked about approximation algorithms, theory of mind, big O, BBN: the Problems of advancing science, problems we were solving- not the ugly worries of the lower realms, dead-end stuff with no reason, base stuff you can’t work on aside from letting it fade, subjective stuff that isn’t truth the way other parts of understanding reality are Truth. Elevate beyond animal emotion, abhor politics, the path to the heavens through technology goes the complete opposite direction!

I was a writing major (21W) in addition to a math major (18C), and Junot’s class was the first real writing class I ever had. I’ve always been a bookworm, but I don’t think I learned to read until Junot taught me to write. Writing reads differently when you read as a writer. Sometimes I mark time by how much a book or script has changed since the last time I read it (my overall conclusion is that the classics actually are good; the literary community and tradition is smarter than me). Learning to write teaches me how to read, which teaches me how to think, which teaches me what to ask, what to work on, what to value. How do we navigate this life, with the noble promises of our expanding human knowledge propelling us into the stars, only for the battering of our pathetic human hearts to tear us back down into the grime? These writing classes were the other half of the equation for me. Ten years ago, I was starved as a stray cat and didn’t suspect that at MIT of all places I’d find a home to take me in.

My answer to “What was it like to have Junot Diaz as your creative writing professor at MIT?”

Judging Strangers

Everything I do depends on other members of our species… And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species.
-the inspiring Steve Jobs

 

I can be pretty judgmental. I believe I also change my mind as I get new information but I don’t know how true that is. In any case, after reading Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, I thought Jobs was an awesome visionary, a self-made hero who transformed, revolutionized and created several unique industries.

Isaacson’s book made me tear up- the drama of Jobs’ creative dreams was so inspiring to an enterprising young person like myself, plus he’s an orphan who grew up to enslave a meek, unambitious, gentle giant genius and force tons of people smarter than him to work harder and smarter than they would’ve asked of themselves. And he wore the same clothes all the time like a dorky superhero. What a courageous star!

Then I read Jobs’ favorite book, “Autobiography of a Yogi.” Apparently Steve Jobs read this book every single year. He made it the first iBook. Has anyone else read this?

My reaction to this book was, “I love Steve Jobs but I have no idea what this yogi is talking about. Am I insane?”

Midway through this book I concluded I had no idea what this yogi was talking about and Steve Jobs was insane.

I actually liked the book and found its preachings of spirituality over materialism inspiring. There were interesting parts about Bose’s plant and radio discoveries that I hadn’t known about (I used to be a Tesla fan (before it was cool!) but now I think Bose might be even cooler, plus I’m nicer to my plants and even my objects (Guys, it’s science. Seriously)) (Also I am really good at yoga, probably a prodigy). But most of the “autobiography” didn’t make any sense. Are we supposed to believe that yogis can levitate or are we supposed to view this whole book as some kind of metaphor? I got the impression it was NOT supposed to be read as fiction- the yogi seemed to believe all this stuff. Did he have the power to bend reality, or was he hallucinating, or was he deliberately lying, or was this some kind of meta art, or is none of it meant to be taken literally?

I still love Steve Jobs. What these books made me realize is how a relatively small new piece of information can really change one’s judgment of a stranger, and how weird that is relative to the slack I give to people I actually know, and the slack I wish for them to bestow me in return.

My best friends could (and do) say anything- no matter how offensive- and I still don’t think they’re bigots because it’s just one drop in the ocean of information we have on one another. In contrast if a total stranger said something evil, I’d probably just never talk to them again because now the only thing I know about them is that they say weird things. Even though I know the likelihood of someone being evil is low, when 100% of my information about someone is negative, maybe I can be justified in judging them for it.

The thing that happened with my judgment of Jobs is not like the complete stranger scenario because I knew a lot about Jobs- I’d read 700+ pages of writing about him, and yet this single new piece of information about this yogi book easily changed the way I viewed him. Maybe it’s because everything I know about Jobs is second hand, so this new piece of information is given the same weight as “founded Apple”- they’re both random facts that took me 30 seconds to learn and my brain doesn’t realize that “favorite book: Autobiography of a Yogi” maybe shouldn’t have the same weight as “founded the most valuable company ever and ran it for decades.”

People are complicated and have lots of inconsistencies because we’re all crazy. Public figures and strangers are not people the way people who we actually know are people. No matter how much you know about a stranger, you still don’t think of them as a real person. Our brains naturally assign stereotypes to people- we map stuff onto other stuff and when we don’t know someone, we make assumptions about them. Maybe a 30 second sound bite can undo 30 years of patriotism and civil service and professional excellence and loving parenthood because the time it took us to process the soundbite is the same as the amount of time it took us to learn they were war heroes or human rights advocates or whatever. We only know our own experiences so when we don’t have personal experience with someone, our judgment can be totally off.

People can be really mean to each other on the internet. The only Internet places I’ve participated in public discourse are Quora, Hacker News, and this blog, all places populated by nerds who are probably more intelligent and educated than 90% of humans. But many responses are either “This person agrees with me, except more so. This person is a genius” or “This person disagrees with me and is an idiot who’s also a jerk and probably hates me and begrudges my happiness and is trying to steal my freedom by annoying me with his crazy comments.”

I think in general people are actually really nice to me on the internet because I don’t hide my identity as a lovable Chinese girl. But whenever I do something anonymously, I see what many Internet men have to deal with. People will completely misread whatever you were saying! They assume you’re a stupid, disagreeable, male jerk and accuse you of all manner of nonsense. For a time this was very annoying because how could someone be so totally wrong! In response I’d either make some joke, present some data that proved their idiocy, or ignore them.

But now whenever I feel the urge to accuse the commenter of being a mean, illiterate troll and basically becoming a troll myself, I now do this trick of pretending the commenter is a particular friend of mine who disagrees with me about everything. I’m not going to say who this person is, but s/he knows who s/he is. And I find I’m way nicer to everyone on the internet when I do this because now my map of “disagreeable person” is no longer “anonymous jerk” but “annoyingly argumentative friend who doesn’t read the correct news sources but is still cool.” I can still get annoyed when a friend obstinately disagrees with me but I’m more open to changing my mind and don’t assume they’re being intentionally stupid or difficult.

Maybe I’ll also try this trick with public figures. Because most public figures are generally not that stupid or evil. They’re strangers, and strangers are not like real people.

Any thoughts to offer a 24 yr old who feels that time is passing at an ever accelerating pace?

Answer by Nancy Hua:

I heard that the brain mainly records new events and your perception of time is based on the number of memories. This makes sense to me because I’m not likely to remember every time I go scuba diving but I’ll probably remember the first time. If I have no memory of last night it’ll feel like last night didn’t happen, like time skipped from yesterday to today, whereas if I stayed up all night talking with a new person it’ll feel like a really long day. This could explain the phenomena you’re describing and prescribe a solution.

When you’re a kid, everything is new, nothing has ever happened to you before (which is part of why kids are lured by strangers into cars, etc: they don’t know what’s normal). Thus your first summer at camp might feel like it’s lasted a million years- you feel yourself changing because your brain is experiencing and recording a lot of new events, meeting new people, and learning new ideas. The fraction of stuff that’s newly recorded in your brain is high, and you feel like time has passed slowly.

As our lives progress, the rate of learning and new experiences tends to slow. As you age and begin a career, you don’t learn new things as frequently. You’re gaining expertise and your community is not changing as much. Furthermore the probability of some event being new to your brain is lower- a monotonically increasing fraction of experiences will map to an existing memory. Because your brain doesn’t record as many new memories, time feels like it’s passing more quickly.

Maybe if you want to make time seem like it’s passing more slowly, you have to get your brain to form a lot of new connections. To do this, you can try to learn a lot of new things, go to new environments, and gain new experiences, which is going to be harder as time passes for obvious reasons, but should be getting easier as technology advances. The amount of information accessible to any person is always increasing, connections between people are always increasing, and travel frictions are constantly decreasing.

The model of getting good at one occupation and doing it repeatedly might make time seem to fly by unless you’re deliberate about it. You could deliberately choose to keep a level of failure in your work and life so that your’e always pushing yourself to become more of an expert and learning new things. Your brain will form new connections every time you go to a sufficiently different environment, so changing locations will make you feel like time is slower and that more stuff is happening to you because you’re forming new memories. Engaging with sufficiently different types of people will also stimulate you.

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What is Nancy Hua going to do next?

Someone asked What is Nancy Hua going to do next? on Quora and then people offered me credits to answer. Who can resist Quora credits? This question has been on my mind a lot. Whenever I dwell on something, it tends to degenerate to the terminal question, “What is the meaning of life?” How often do people think about this? Talking about my weird thoughts caused someone to tell me not to have a midlife crisis. I haven’t even said all the most outlandish things I think. But here’s another taste:

I don’t think I’ve achieved very much in life yet. Looking at people who’ve changed the world and helped so many others, relative to them I haven’t accomplished anything. However, I don’t feel like they’re fundamentally better than me because they’re not superhuman- they’re people just like us, and many of them were born in vastly inferior circumstances, often simply because the past sucks compared to the present. A person born in modern times can impact billions of people with a few years of work, which wasn’t true for anyone even 100 years ago. Newton’s knowledge of science and math is nothing compared to mine, and forget women born even a few decades before me. By virtue of birth, I understand the nature of reality better than Benjamin Franklin- isn’t that awesome? I don’t idealize any past golden age because it’s obvious that now is the best time to have been born. I’d rather be me, right now, than an 18th century king.

The suggestion that our species may have peaked 50 years ago is terrifying and sad. If anyone believed our species were degenerating, it’d be their top priority to try to reverse this trend. Wouldn’t it be tragic if our children looked back and wished they’d been born 100 years ago, or that things became so bad they would even prefer to have been born in Victorian England?

Similarly, there shouldn’t be a golden age of my life either- I want to always want to be what I am, to never look back and wish to be a previous version of myself. I think so far that trend has held- whenever I remember previous Nancy’s, their stupidity mortifies me and I feel thankful current Nancy is so superior in comparison, and I happily anticipate my future self dismantling my current self. I want to always feel that way, just as I always want to feel that human beings are getting better and better.

This trend of progress doesn’t arise without deliberate work. If many people hadn’t dedicated their lives to advancing our race, if Nelson Mandela hadn’t been courageous and self sacrificing, if Turing hadn’t been patriotic and determined, it’s quite possible that I wouldn’t feel blessed to have been born in this age, that our species could’ve peaked decades ago and all that would await us would be pollution and mutual annihilation. We must choose to continuously improve, both as a species and as individuals. When I think about what I want to work on, it’s with both humbleness and boldness. Why not reach for greatness? What do I have to lose- I haven’t achieved anything yet!

In general I’m looking for enormous growth. Our world has several areas offering exponential growth so there’s a lot to learn and consider. Due to my noncompete period, I can’t discuss work with non prospective partners, so ask me in 2013.

Current projects include
1) fundraising for PGSS, a nerd camp I attended in high school, http://pgssalumni.org,
2) blogging at http://nancyhua.com (this blog will probably exist until December),
3) writing screenplays,
4) trading my personal account (allowed iff I manually enter every trade),
5) researching startups.